The Good I Ought to Do (James 4:17)

Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.

James 4:17

This is yet another of those verses that is often quoted in isolation. It is used as this blanket exhortation to do the good I know that I ought to do, but quoting it without its full context robs it of some of its force, I think.

This verse ends the thought that I do not know what is going to happen. James begins the thought with a statement that sounds as though he is trying to reason with a difficult child: Come now, you who say … (v13). What is it that they say? That they will do this, that, and the other, laying out what they plan to do for years to come. James’ retort is that they do not know what [their] life will be like tomorrow (v14). He says that they should always predicate their plans on the will of God, i.e. if God wills that they should do this thing they plan to do the they will do it. James then puts a full stop to this idea with this morning’s verse.

Thinking it through, I realize that those who take this verse and remove it from its context are not usually changing what it means. We still exhort one another to do the good thing we ought to do. But we rob the verse of its immediacy when we pull it out of its larger context. It is said that deferred obedience is, to God, disobedience. And this verse, taken in context, reinforces that. This verse, situated in the larger thought, says that I not only ought to do the good thing I know to do, but that I ought to do it now. Why? Because I do not know what my life will be like tomorrow. I do not know if I will be able to do this good thing later, the circumstances might change — they often do — or the person to whom I am in a position to do good might not be in a position to receive it.

The exhortation I take away from this verse this morning is that I ought to do the good thing I know to do and to do it when I realize that it should be done.

Father, I am guilty of postponing doing the good things You place before me. Too often, I have let the opportunity to do something good pass by. Please make firm the exhortation of this verse in me and remind me, in the moment, that do not do the good You reveal to me is, to me, a sin.


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